Speaking as One of the 47 Percent


Dear Governor Romney:

My name is Sean Shannon. I’m an aspiring author, part-time English teacher, freelance writer and artist from Toledo, Ohio, just south of where you were born. Like many Americans, I watched the hidden camera footage of you speaking to some of your wealthy donors this spring and making sweeping generalizations about those of us who do not pay income tax with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust. I will admit to being offended by a lot of what you said. However, as I was taught by my parents, and as I teach my students, it is essential to at least attempt dialogues in even the most hostile of circumstances, and it is with this idea in mind that I would like to offer constructive feedback to your video and the statements you have made in response to the resulting controversy, as well as your campaign in general.

First of all, I hope this incident has taught you that, regardless of where you are and whom you are with, you must be careful with your words. Even those of us who don’t make that much money can still afford smartphones, so everywhere you go these days there are people who essentially have camcorders in their pockets. Even we laypeople have to be careful about what we say and do these days because of the possibility that someone could be filming us and putting their videos of us on YouTube. This could not only be highly embarrassing, but if the hiring director at a company we apply to work at in the future finds the video through an Internet search on our names — a common practice in human resource departments these days — it could potentially be very damaging to our employment prospects. As the presidential candidate of one of the two biggest American political parties, you are millions of times more vulnerable to this phenomenon than the average person, and you yourself have acknowledged in recent television interviews that there’s a sizable percentage of the electorate out there who just doesn’t like you on a personal level. The person who filmed you at this fundraiser certainly doesn’t seem to want to do you any favours. It would be wise if in the future, no matter how alone or secure you think you are, you refrained from making these “off the cuff” comments, as you called them, to avoid something like this happening again.

Moving on to your actual words in the video, you seem to conflate the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax with the Democratic voting base, which then leads you to suggest to your donors that there’s no practical use in trying to win their votes. This is far from the truth; there are plenty of Republicans, Democrats, third party members (like me), and others in that group. If you don’t try to win some of those voters then you doom yourself to having to win over 90% of the remaining electorate in order to win the presidency, and surely you’ve noticed that not everyone who makes millions of dollars a year is a Republican. In case your advisers haven’t told you (or you weren’t listening to them), a good part of the reason for the past thirty-two years of Republican electoral success is the constant droning in right-wing media, pioneered by Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, of appeals to poor Americans that they can become rich if they elect Republicans who will undo the “crippling regulations” that “stifle innovation in this country” or whatever other red herrings conservatives are trotting out these days, and of course they should support lower taxes on the rich, because won’t they want to pay less in taxes when they start making their fortunes? It’s Talking Point Number One in the Reagonomics Media Playbook, and to abandon all those who don’t make enough money to pay income taxes because you think you can’t convince them of your economic plans is akin to political suicide in a presidential campaign.

Luckily for you, many of these people lack the data or the critical thinking skills (or both) to see from the past thirty-two years that trickle-down economics is a huge scam designed to make the rich richer at the expense of everyone else, and these people have been trained by right-wing media like Fox News and Limbaugh to tune out anything that doesn’t gel with the right-wing ideology they’re spoonfed every day, so a lot of them will vote for you no matter what you say. (Unless you decide to be pro-choice or tolerant of non-heterosexuals again.) Still, lack of knowledge of these basic realities of modern presidential campaigns, especially the strategies your own party has used to such success in recent decades, along with several of the other gaffes your campaign has made this year, lead me to wonder if you have the skills and knowledge necessary to even run a campaign for president, let alone actually act as president.

Secondly, although your “concern” comments did seem limited to whether or not you could win the votes of this part of the electorate, those words are dangerously evocative of a sentiment that many non-conservatives felt during the Bush 43 years, that Republicans only governed for the benefit of those who vote for them. One of President Obama’s worst decisions after taking office was to continually offer compromise to Republicans who had repeatedly made clear that they had no desire to compromise, to the point where Republicans started blocking legislation that they themselves supported, and in some cases even authored, simply by dint of the fact that President Obama was now supporting it as a “bipartisan compromise.” Your previous comments that you’re “not concerned about the very poor” because of the social safety nets they have — be glad Obama’s campaign team didn’t take that gem out of context and jam it down everyone’s throats thousands of times like you and your campaign did with his “you didn’t build that” snippet — already did a lot to fuel the impression that you’re indifferent, at best, to lower-income people and their plights, and only want to be president to help your rich friends. Your words in this video, to borrow one of this election’s most overused phrases, “double down” on that image.

Your assertions that those of us who don’t make enough money to pay income tax want to live off of the taxes that the wealthy pay, and that we don’t want to take responsibility for our lives, are the most insulting of all. Although I have yet to make enough money in a year to have to pay income tax, it has not been from lack of trying. Although my parents were hardly as wealthy as yours, I am blessed enough to have a family that has supported me, financially and otherwise, through very tough times, including paying a large part of my college tuition. Since I got my Master of Arts degree in English Literature I have endeavoured to get a full-time position teaching English, one that would pay me enough that I would rise out of “the 47 percent,” but so far I’ve had to make do with part-time positions, taking other odd jobs like freelance writing work to make a little extra money. The vast majority of us who do not pay income taxes want to be in positions where we make enough money that we get into those higher-income tax brackets, and we work our tails off to try to make that happen. I realize one of Ronald Reagan’s most famed talking points among conservatives is how we shouldn’t put lots of money into social safety net programmes because of their potential to be cheated, but at least Reagan and his ideological descendants had the common sense to just talk about a few of those who unfairly take advantage of these safety nets and then imply that there were lots more of those kinds of people out there. To state that all of “the 47 percent” don’t want to “take personal responsibility” and would rather laze about living on other people’s hard work is nothing short of galling.

The answers you give to your donors’ questions in this video — even the ones not related to those of us in “the 47 percent” — seem to indicate an inability to understand the desire of others to want to help their fellow human beings. This strikes me as inherently opposed to the teachings of the Mormon church, which you and your wife frequently mention you tithe ten percent of your income to. Do you think that religion is the only vehicle through which people can charitably help others? Contrary to what you seem to assert in this video, those of us who rise out of the lower tax brackets to reach “the 53 percent” of those who pay income tax will not, once we cross that line, automatically act solely out of our own self-interest and stop believing in liberal (or what passes for liberal in America these days) economic ideas. There are plenty of people of all walks of life — even Republicans — who believe that the government should have at least some role in providing a safety net for its citizens who fall on tough times, and provide some level of regulation to make sure that the potential excesses of capitalism come under at least partial restraint. We can debate the size and scope of the safety net and regulations, and we can debate whether government or the marketplace is the best vehicle by which to protect the populace against those who would harm them for personal gain or satisfaction, but even most of those who argue that “free” and unregulated (or minimally regulated) markets provide the best solutions to our problems make that argument not just out of their own self-interest, but because they believe that this will provide the best outcome for most Americans. The vast majority of Americans do not act entirely out of their own self-interest; if they did, this country would quickly become unmanageable and fall into outright anarchy. (Some would argue that this is precisely the cause of our current unrest.)

Ultimately, Governor Romney, acting solely out of self-interest may be what best defines you to the more than 47 percent of people who will not vote for you in November. From your refusal to release more years of your tax returns, to your refusal to provide specifics on how you plan on fixing the problems you so often point to when talking about President Obama’s first term, to your surrogates’ frequent use of the phrase “you people” when describing those who don’t obey your every desire, to the assertion you make in this video that the economy will begin to turn itself around simply by your election as president, without you actually doing anything, you come off as a narcissist and an egoist. You appear to believe that you are above reproach and criticism, and that you deserve to be elected to office simply from your past accomplishments and the fact that you are not Barack Obama, and that the same tools you used to amass your personal fortune will somehow benefit a country of over three hundred million people.

As I said at the start of this letter, I always attempt to create dialogues even when that seems impossible, and encourage others to do the same. Since I am unlikely to ever gain a personal audience with you, I’m left to judge your personal character simply by what we see of you on television, in the speeches you make and your interviews and the commercials your campaign and its surrogates put out. Based on the personality you have projected in your public life I, and likely many others as well, have gotten the impression that you are governed solely by your own self-interest, that you do not shake a single hand or spend a single dollar or utter a single word without first making the calculation of what is in it for you and how you can benefit from it. That may be a good way to amass a huge personal fortune, but it is no way to act as ruler of a country. Somehow I get the feeling that much more than forty-seven percent of the voting public agrees with me on that.

Ms. Sean Shannon

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